FILM REVIEW – SERENITY. With Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou. Written and directed by Steven Knight. Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, and some bloody images. 106 minutes.
As someone who came of age in the heyday of late-night premium cable, I have recently become quite puzzlingly nostalgic for erotic thrillers, which for some sad reason Hollywood stopped making ages ago. Largely crummy and compulsively watchable, these modestly budgeted potboilers required little more than an exotic locale and a few glimpses of celebrity skin to keep one tuned in through the usually underwhelming violent climax. Over the past months I must confess I’ve found myself staying up far too late to watch the lousy likes of “Masquerade” and “Consenting Adults,” and for about an hour or so writer-director Steven Knight’s SERENITY appeared poised to scratch a similar itch.
Set on the peculiarly named tropical island of Plymouth, the film stars Matthew McConaughey as the magnificently monikered Baker Dill – a swarthy fisherman possessed of an Ahab-like fervor for a possibly mythical, oversized tuna he calls “Justice.” When not at sea, Baker spends his afternoons servicing a ravishing, silk-robed rich lady (Diane Lane) and the two discuss her frequently missing cat in a spectacularly strange simulacrum of dirty talk.
Until one day, of all the gin joints and all the towns, in walks Baker’s ex (Anne Hathaway, decked out in blonde hair and noir lighting) offering him ten million dollars to take her rich, abusive husband (a seethingly unpleasant Jason Clarke) out for a fishing trip and toss him overboard to the sharks. Of course, she could also be playing him for a sucker, and if you’ve seen a few old Robert Mitchum movies you can probably figure out where this is headed.
Except you’d be wrong. Especially after the unseasonably dressed, black-suited fishing tackle salesman strolls in at 2:30 in the morning to drop a depth charge of goofball exposition and “Serenity” supernovas from a trashy little piece of pulp into a full-blown aria of nonsense. Suddenly all the overwrought performances and stilted dialogue – which felt so jarringly amateurish from the screenwriter of sophisticated, adult fare like “Eastern Promises” and “Dirty Pretty Things” – are revealed to be by design, and if the movie has thus far felt like a thirteen-year-old boy’s idea of a film noir, well it turns out there’s a very good reason or that.
Bafflingly, “Serenity” soldiers on with business as usual after it’s movie-exploding plot twist. (I believe it was A.O. Scott who said of the dippy James Mangold thriller “Identity” that it rips the rug out from underneath you and then continues vacuuming. I thought about that line a lot while watching this picture.) You sort of just sit there, mouth agape, wondering why we must keep going through the motions here now that all the beans have been spilled. Nevertheless, Baker Dill’s pursuit of Justice continues.
“Serenity” is exactly the kind of movie that tanks at the box office and gets a lot of mock-outraged bad reviews and Razzie nominations, yet I think there is something to admire in the go-for-broke nuttiness of the entire affair, and the cast’s ardent commitment, no matter how foolish they sometimes look. (Watching his anguished, scenery-devouring cries here is a reminder that post-comeback McConaughey will never again be accused of giving too little to a role.)
After much puzzled meditation on the picture I think the problem with “Serenity” is not its inherent, absurd stupidity – lots of awesome movies are stupid – but rather Knight too often striving for the grim and unpleasant. McConaughey and Hathaway can be delightful performers, but they’re directed here to be relentlessly dour, and one of the reasons the movie comes off as so silly is because everyone’s taking it so damn seriously.
One marvels to think of what the slightly winking, sardonic tone of a De Palma or Cronenberg might have wrestled from this material. If “Serenity” had taken even the slightest bit of pleasure in its own ridiculousness this could have been something very special indeed.•••
Over the past twenty years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.